Sunday, November 1, 2015

“Git gat gittle giddle-di-ap giddle-de-tommy riddle de biddle de roop da-reep fa-san skeedle de woo-da fiddle de wada reep!”

The only occasion in which I previously saw The Danny Kaye Show prior to welcoming gradual telecasts of the series being released to DVD was a clip showcased on CBS: On the Air, the all-star gala stretched over seven nights to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Tiffany Network.  Kaye was one of the co-hosts for the Wednesday night edition, and they showed a sequence from his popular variety hour in which he chatted up precocious child star Victoria Meyerink, who would soon enjoy a short career of popularity appearing in films like Elvis Presley’s Speedway (1968) and on such shows as Green Acres and My Three Sons.  (My memory is a bit rusty regarding the content in the clip, but I vaguely recall he sang a song to her as well.)

On the Air then reunited Kaye with a teenage Meyerink, whom I had caught in an ABC Afterschool Special entitled “It Isn’t Easy Being a Teenage Millionaire” two weeks earlier.  (It would be Victoria’s last gig as an actress, according to the [always reliable] IMDb; since that time she has worked as an award-winning television producer.)  I remember the entertainer gulped nervously and ad-libbed about how much she’d grown.  (Look, I know that kind of gives off a creepy vibe—but Danny was referencing what he always said to her whenever she appeared on his show as a child.)  Kaye’s variety series, which aired over the CBS Television Network from 1963-67 for a total of 120 telecast episodes, has been MIA on home video for many years save for a 1993 video release entitled The Best of Danny Kaye: The Television Years, which spotlighted classic musical moments from the series.  It was released to DVD in May of 2012, and later in December of that same year Christmas with Danny Kaye, a single disc with two Yuletide-themed telecasts (one with Nat King Cole and the other with Peggy Lee) broke the log jam: there have since been a number of small collections containing uncut episodes of the variety hour starring the “Everyman of Entertainment.”

The latest Danny Kaye Show DVD release is Danny Kaye: Legends, an MVD Visual collection released this past October 16th that my Facebook chum Jeff Abraham (at Jonas PR) was generous enough to bring to my attention by sending a screener my way.  Young Meyerink is featured in two of the telecasts, dated January 4 and January 11, 1967.  Meyerink’s spot would usually occur near the end of the program; to demonstrate his amazing rapport with audiences, Danny would set aside time at the end of each hour for a “quiet” segment: an informal interaction with the studio audience and viewers, telling jokes and singing songs in an intimate setting that allowed him to take a breath from what was surely a strenuous workout for a man of his age.  Kaye was 52 at the time The Danny Kaye Show premiered on CBS-TV…but with his vim and vitality he often seemed twenty years younger.

Danny Kaye: Legends is comprised of six telecasts from the 1963-67 variety series.  The first two episodes feature guest stars Lucille Ball (11/04/64) and Imogene Coca (12/09/64)—Lucy did a 1962 TV special with Danny pre-Kaye Show, and Imogene would not only be one of Kaye’s frequent guests she was an old friend from back in the days when the two made two-reel comedies for Educational (she and Danny, along with June Allyson and Barry Sullivan, appear in 1937’s Dime a Dance).  These two programs are among my favorites on the set, not only because of Lucy and Imogene but because the black-and-white episodes of Kaye’s show seem to be of a better visual quality than the later color efforts (the series discarded its monochrome origins in the fall of 1965 as part of CBS’ commitment to make buying a color TV worth the effort).  Granted, the color technology back then was still in its experimental stage…so live and/or videotaped programs are not without their problems.

Old Home Week!
The Lucy show highlights include a hilarious tour-de-force in which the two redheads play theatrical troupe actors forced to play all the roles in a production due to a snowstorm sidelining the rest of the company; Lucy and Danny have to make quick costume changes to take on all the parts, and afterwards Danny presents some footage shot from backstage to emphasize the craziness that went on.  With Imogene Coca, the duo perform send-ups of Gilbert and Sullivan and Swan Lake—the latter quite reminiscent of the climactic ballet scene from Knock on Wood (1954).  The musical guests are a bit disappointing—though I’ll admit there may be more fervent Tony Bennett (on the Coca telecast) fans out there than I.  Vocalist John Gary warbles a couple of tunes on the Lucy program; Danny seemed quite taken with the singer (Gary would host a summer replacement series for The Danny Kaye Show in 1966) and never seemed to run out of superlatives to describe him.  Me?  Meh.

This sketch could have been a Lucy Show episode!
"Little Latin Lupe Lu..."
A September 29, 1965 telecast with Shirley Jones and the Righteous Brothers also threatened to put me to sleep (sorry, Mrs. Partridge)…though Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield do sing their big hit You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.  The duo also play lawyers in a musical sketch about “Man vs. Woman” that’s a bit lame (Danny and Shirl are fighting the age-old “battle of the sexes”) but does feature Kaye Show regular Harvey Korman as a judge and this individual playing the bailiff…

…is Thurl “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” Ravenscroft, one-time Sportsman Quartet member and voice of Tony the Tiger (the animated mascot for Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes).  Always nice to see Thurl, as you might imagine.

Appearing in a sketch with Danny is the incomparable Harold Gould.  Other performers I spotted in skits on both DVDs include Jamie Farr and Henry Beckman.
Disc 2 spotlights the aforementioned January 4 (Louis Armstrong) and January 11, 1967 (Vikki Carr and Liberace) programs plus a March 1, 1967 telecast with guest star George Burns.  I love anything with Satchmo, so I’m tempted to call the January 4 telecast my favorite of the bunch; Armstrong sings So Long Dearie and duets with Danny on When the Saints Go Marchin’ In, which the duo performed in The Five Pennies (1959).  The Carr/Liberace program has some great moments—there’s this “James Bond” spoof with Liberace as a super villain…

This “James Bond” spoof isn’t uproarious funny…but I owned a paperback in my youth entitled The TV Book, which had a feature entitled “A Pictorial History of Television” along its bottom pages and a photo of the “twinage” of Danny and Liberace was included.  Now I can say I’ve seen the sketch.  (Closure!)
…and Vikki, Danny and Lee do a jaunty version of Style.  In addition, the George Burns show is worth the price of admission to hear George and Danny swap some show business stories (including some hilarious Jack Benny anecdotes) and George sing in his one-of-a-kind fashion (including Red Rose Rag and Ain’t Misbehavin’) with Danny and the show’s Earl Brown Singers.

The Hillcrest Golf Club story Danny tells about Jack Benny is gold, Jerry.

Jeff was also nice to enough to send me—to be honest, he passed along a metric ton of swag…so you’ll probably be reading reviews within this next month—the earlier MVD Visual release of The Best of The Danny Kaye Show (released in October of 2014).  As with Legends, Best of also features six telecasts with guest stars like Harry Belafonte (09/15/65) and Ella Fitzgerald (10/05/66), not to mention Kaye’s premiere telecast from September 25, 1963 (with guests Jackie Cooper and Lovelady Powell)—which opens with a hilarious gag in which the star’s entrance is heralded by trumpets, dancing girls, soldiers, and Egyptian slaves carrying a litter which, when the curtain is pulled back, reveals…

“Wouldn’t this have been a wonderful opening for Danny Kaye?” Jack, the true master of timing, marvels after the perfect pause to milk the laughter.  As the procession moves on, we see that the guy bringing up the rear…

…is Mr. Kaye himself.  To be honest, anything that followed that would be hard to top.

Second banana Harvey Korman and Kaye play astronauts in a "teaser" sketch.
Fortunately, there is plenty of great comedy featured in the black-and-white shows on The Best of Danny Kaye; the shows from the early seasons featured material penned by Your Show of Shows scribe Mel Tolkin and old-time radio veteran Larry Gelbart, while the writing chores were taken up in later years by the likes of Pat McCormick, (future director) Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker.  The Jackie Cooper telecast has a gut-buster of a sketch in which nervous first-flier Danny is terrorized by his obnoxious seatmate (Coop), and a January 22, 1964 outing finds Art Carney clowning with the host (Art plays an obnoxious fix-it man who’s part Ed Norton and part Rudy the Repairman, one of his pal Jackie Gleason’s creations).  Danny, Art and Harvey also appear in a Twilight Zone parody that also sends up Lost Horizon and makes use of a cameo by this guy:

The Belafonte and Fitzgerald telecasts feature sensational musical numbers: I loved Danny and Harry’s rendition of Belafonte’s Calypso hit Mama Look a Boo (Harry can’t keep a straight face when Kaye comes out dressed in Belafonte-like Calypso garb) and Ella, Danny and guest Buddy Greco go to town on It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).  The sixth telecast on this disc, with guest Liza Minnelli (January 5, 1966; Liza with a “Z” sings For Every Man There’s a Woman and Maybe This Time), also features a fun trio of Kaye, John Gary and Alan Young on Just an Honest Mistake.  (Alan and Danny also do a hilarious race car sketch with regular Joyce Van Patten on this last one as well.)

Like Carol Burnett—who inherited Harvey Korman when her CBS show premiered in the fall of 1967—Danny Kaye started out with a series of specials on “The Stars’ Address” before being offered a weekly variety hour in 1963 (though I need to emphasize Carol benefitted from a clause in her CBS contract).  Originally, Kaye’s program was going to air right after the network’s powerhouse Ed Sullivan Show at 9pm Sunday…but the showman said “Pasadena” (heh…Dena) to what was widely considered a “graveyard slot”—NBC’s Bonanza was on the same time, and would finish ranked at #2 by the end of the season before spending the next three seasons at the number-one series in the Nielsens.  (Judy Garland’s show was slotted against Bonanza instead…and though her hour had more than its share of problems, having to go up against the Cartwrights certainly didn’t do her series any favors.)

In its first season, The Danny Kaye Show finished at #30 among all TV programs…and it would go on to win three Emmy Awards that season, including Outstanding Program Achievement in the Field of Variety and Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series (for Mr. David Daniel Kaminsky).  The show also snagged a George Foster Peabody honor as one of the best entertainment programs that year.   But stiff competition soon began to gnaw at Danny’s ratings: first, from NBC’s Wednesday Night at the Movies the following season…and the same network’s I Spy after that.  When you stop to consider that much of the Danny Kaye fan base was composed of younger viewers who enjoyed him in such films as Hans Christian Andersen (1952) and Merry Andrew (1958), you have to wonder why CBS didn’t consider finding an earlier time slot to beef up Kaye’s standing in the Nielsens.  Low ratings and diffident critical support ultimately brought The Danny Kaye Show a cancellation after four seasons.  It was a different situation on the other side of the pond; the United Kingdom has enjoyed a long love affair with Danny Kaye (Bob Hope once memorably cracked: “Danny has been practically adopted by the British…I used his dressing room when I was over there…it was a modest affair—just two mirrors and a throne”), and The Danny Kaye Show was imported in time to appear on BBC-2 when that channel began transmissions and was a hit for three seasons.

I’m not as enthusiastic a Danny Kaye fan as some of my classic movie brethren and sistren; I enjoy a lot of his movies—I think The Court Jester is a movie comedy masterpiece, and I’m also partial to The Inspector General, Knock on Wood and On the Double—but sometimes a little Kaye goes a long way (I think the best adjective to describe his radio show is “precious”).  Watching these telecasts has brought me a new appreciation for Danny, and I hope MVD Visual and Kaye’s estate continues to make these accessible for home video collectors.  For you see—I cannot deny the ferocity of the man’s talent; he was a master entertainer in addition to being a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, an accomplished chef, a licensed pilot, a baseball enthusiast (he was at one time a part-owner of the Seattle Mariners and possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of America’s greatest pastime) and a honorary member of both the American College of Surgeons and the American Academy of Pediatrics.  “Life is a great big canvas,” he would remark in later years, “throw all the paint you can at it.”  With that in mind, I cannot recommend highly enough acquiring the DVD sets Legends: Danny Kaye and The Best of the Danny Kaye Show for your own personal art gallery.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a kid, I never missed The Danny Kaye Show and have long opined that it was the best variety show nobody ever saw because of its absence on video. Only the Carol Burnett Show ever approached Danny Kaye in the brilliance and quality of musical revue numbers and high-level guest performers; Carol may have had more consistently excellent comedy sketch writing. What a brilliant performer the perfectionistic Kaye was, able to work in nearly any musical genre. And yes, CBS executives were a bunch of obstinate morons for not putting this show on earlier; if they had, it might have run for a decade. His show revealed why Kaye's persona was so valuable to UNICEF--he may have been bipolar and difficult with adults, but an underlying sincerity and directness came across to children even without the forced "warmth" so easily faked by many celebrities.